Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen during a 2023 informational video. Credit: Courtesy Facebook

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is running for re-election in 2024, his campaign staff announced Tuesday.

Knudsen, a Republican, is presenting himself as a tough-on-crime conservative who will both crack down on fentanyl distribution and stand up to the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden.

“President Biden has been a disaster for Montana,” Knudsen said in a statement announcing his campaign. “He has abdicated his duty to secure the border, allowing drugs to pour into our country, making the fight against crime in Montana more difficult. His administration and its allied anti-gun activists attack the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. And his energy policies are draining family budgets and making our nation less secure. It will take years to undo the harm he has done — but I’m committed to getting the job done for Montanans and humbly ask for their support to do so.”

Knudsen said his administration has procured additional crime-fighting resources from the Legislature, worked with lawmakers to strengthen a variety of criminal penalties, and challenged dozens of Biden administration policies in court. 

Barring unforeseen upsets in the primary election, Knudsen will face Democratic challenger Ben Alke next November. 

Montana’s attorney general leads the  Department of Justice, which includes the state highway patrol, criminal investigations bureaus, criminal prosecutors and civil attorneys who defend the state’s laws in court. The office has also provided Knudsen a bully pulpit from which to weigh in on a variety of hot-button political issues and to challenge the Biden administration on a range of issues including vaccine mandates and Keystone XL pipeline permitting decisions. 


How Austin Knudsen is flipping the script of attorney general

Montana Free Press interviewed more than a dozen former Department of Justice attorneys and legal observers. Some described Knudsen’s actions toward the judiciary as “breathtaking” and “embarrassing” for the legal profession. Others said the office’s tactics seem intentionally designed to undermine Montana’s democratic institutions. Knudsen says he’s doing what voters expect of him.

A former Roosevelt County Attorney and speaker of the state House of Representatives, Knudsen was elected attorney general in a 2020 cycle that saw Republicans win every statewide office in Montana and take near-total control of the Legislature. Knudsen and his attorneys subsequently defended the dozens of laws — abortion restrictions, bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youth and much more — that passed the GOP-dominated Legislature only to face almost immediate legal challenges. Knudsen’s office was also a major player in a separation of powers fight concerning legislative subpoena power and the independence of the Montana Supreme Court that colored much of the 2021 legislative session and continues to impact the state’s judicial politics. 

In September, Montana’s attorney ethics office filed a formal complaint accusing Knudsen of violating the state’s rules of professional attorney conduct in incidents that arose during that interbranch conflict. 

Democrat Alke, Knudsen’s only declared opponent, has honed in on that part of the incumbent’s record, claiming at a campaign launch event that Knudsen “doesn’t know how to do his job” and has “used the office as a weapon,” pointing to a 2021 incident in which the AG’s office dispatched a state trooper to St. Peter’s Health in Helena to investigate claims by the family of a former state Senate employee hospitalized there with COVID-19 that doctors were mistreating her because they would not treat her with ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine. St. Peter’s claimed hospital staff were harassed and threatened by public officials for not prescribing an unapproved treatment for the virus. 

“He’s used the power granted to that office for inappropriate purposes, to try to divide us,” Alke said at the time.

Knudsen has made no bones about his aggressive style and at times outright contempt for the state’s legal establishment. He trounced his Democratic opponent in 2020, and figures he’s doing what voters elected him to do, he told Montana Free Press in 2021.

“Montanans had the chance to vote for ‘status quo’ a couple different times in the AG’s race. They didn’t do it. Overwhelmingly, I got voted for. I’m an aggressive guy. I think people knew what they were voting for with me,” he said then. 


Montana Supreme Court revokes Rosebud coal mine expansion

The Montana Supreme Court has halted an expansion of a Westmoreland-operated mine that supplies the Colstrip power plant with coal. The court’s decision vacated an 8-year-old permit that allowed Westmoreland to pull 12 million tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine located in southeastern Montana.

Missoula again looks for answers to Brooks Street malfunction 

Walking across Brooks Street can be “daunting,” and a lack of bicycle lanes forces riders into traffic or onto sidewalks, safety concerns the city of Missoula is looking to improve in a new study, along with expanding transit options and alleviating traffic problems. The Transform Brooks – Connect Midtown project is part of an effort to encourage development and improve the standard of living in midtown Missoula.

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.